March 27, 2020
We are thinking of you and your children as we persist through a difficult time separately yet together as a community. Like many of you, we are homeschooling for the first time. We are learning to tolerate uncertainty and associated discomfort. We are trying to make good decisions with minimal information about what the future holds.
As a psychologist, I am always looking for patterns and trying to make sense of behaviors. (This, of course, drives my husband and family crazy as I over-analyze and try to make meaning of everything!) Below, I’ve included some observations we’ve made in our home as we imperfectly and clumsily parent our children in uncharted waters.
While having all five of our kids (ages 5, 8, 14, 17, and 18) at home, their differing needs have been expected and obvious. However, we have also seen striking similarities between them that signal three primary things they need from us as parents (and stepparents in our case): consistency, control and connection.
Our kids need CONSISTENCY. Children do not need perfect schedule-following, but they need to know there are things they can count on no matter what. Consistency looks like accountability, steady moods and responses from adults, and a degree of uniformity in the weekdays.
When this is going well in our house, it looks like morning and nighttime routines, dinners as a family, and sticking to our typical rules. When it’s not going well, our kids seem listless and lack grounding. Little things feel big, and feelings are hurt easily.
Our kids need to exercise CONTROL. Children are desperate for the power to influence their situation. These days, with their schools closed and activities cancelled, kids are right to feel somewhat powerless. Though we aren’t in charge of these situations either, within the context of parent-led consistency, we can provide important doses of control for our children. In contrast, too much power (i.e., kids doing what they want all day long) feels like chaos. Consistency and control go hand in hand and are best strived for together.
In our house, control has sounded like these statements:
- These are the things you need to accomplish today, what is your plan to get them done?
- You get to plan the next three hours. What do you pick? (If this is posited to my 5-year-old, it always involves Frozen 2, of course!)
- Do you want me to decide or would you prefer to choose?
When things feel out of control, as they did on Wednesday night for us, my youngest daughter and son are yelling at each other about who gets to choose the music for our family dance party – both desperately claiming that they never get to be in charge of anything…because that’s how life feels these days.
Our kids need CONNECTION. This is the word I’ve focused on as I imagine straddling the worlds of fearful transparency and pretending this is a fun school vacation. To me, in our current context, connection has meant spending quality time with my children while working to both acknowledge and anticipate the new feelings they are having.
Children, including teenagers, benefit from parents managing their exposure to the indefinite and scary scenarios playing out in our heads. Their brains struggle to sort out what is definite from what is unknown which can cause anxiety. However, children do need factual information and contextual reassurance.
For example, my 8-year-old needed to understand that all the schools were being closed, not just his. He’s also benefitted from connecting with school friends and having FaceTime added to his daily task list.
Our teenagers needed acknowledgment that their cancelled plans and activities were a huge loss and left them feeling purposeless and trapped. They also needed clarification that this is not a long spring break. Governor’s orders and changing social norms helped with that.
Children desperately need consistency, control, and connection in normal times (and so do adults!) and we are quickly learning that stress heightens everything. It increases already present financial stress. It exposes marital tension. It demonstrates our areas of growth.
Our job as parents is to protect our kids. Right now, let’s do what we can to protect their precious brains from overload by providing consistency in chaos, control in uncertainty, and meaningful connection in the midst of ever-changing circumstances.
Sending our best to all of you as we navigate these new challenges individually and collectively.
Dr. Kelly Jones
Executive Director, Outpost Summer Camps
“We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.” Brené Brown